by Former Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
I’ve been following Diplo for some time, observing his work with appreciation, other times disappointment, and sometimes both at once. Back in the early days, when he was throwing warehouse parties in Philly, and later profiling DJs from around the world on his Mad Decent podcast (now a full-on record label and official site), Wesley Pentz was brazenly admitting to pirate-everything, right down to the clandestinely operated podcast itself. There was something refreshing and almost alluring about the nature of backpacking around the world with a passport and a tape recorder. Often considered a modern-day, musical Columbus, though his reputation for “discovering” new musical worlds would be one that would soon bite him where the sun doesn’t shine, Diplo made a name for himself by appropriating a variety of music and presenting it all with chameleon-like efficiency.
Some of you may know him for his production work on MIA’s first, albeit bootleg, album Piracy Funds Terrorism, a mashed up, remixed set of tracks which would later find themselves cleaned-up and repackaged on the official studio album Arular, or later for the Clash and Wreckx-n-Effect sampling “Paper Planes.”
However, he ultimate climax in Diplo’s fame has been in recent years, arguably months, with his promotion for Blackberry…
…and his collaborative work with UK producer Switch (producer for M.I.A. and Santigold) for the dancehall outfit Major Lazer.
But this month, Diplo’s spike in popularity came from a place slightly removed from his music by way of scathing criticism by a DJ named Iceberg Venus X. You see, much like other forms of appropriation (see: imperialism, colonialism, and popular use of cultural artifacts), a backlash always follows. The question of whether or not Diplo’s methods are ethical aside, the process is usually the same:
- 1. musical genre or artist relatively unknown in the United States (save small immigrant groups still connected to the homeland or marginalized American communities of color) gets samples or featured in one of Diplo’s live sets, recorded mixes, podcasts, or via the Mad Decent blog (sometimes without the artist’s knowledge, though this is a common practice in DJ culture and not exclusive to Diplo)
2. said artist might be included as a headliner to the show of a more popular Mad Decent artist when applicable
3. genre and the artists performing it gain popularity as a result of their association with Diplo/Mad Decent
4. Diplo picks up a new genre/artist and the previous artist, often still unsigned, is left to continue self-promoting
Iceberg Venus X, a Latina lesbian DJ who is one of the founders of the Ghe20 g0th1k party in Brooklyn opened for Maluca’s (a NY-based, Dominican-American female singer signed to Mad Decent) tour, took issue when she noticed the same thing happening in her case (notably Diplo’s recording a segment of Iceberg Venus X’s live set). But instead of addressing the issue directly with Diplo and the Mad Decent camp, she used Twitter to put him on blast, a move that cheapened her grievances, but ultimately resulted in a very public questioning of Diplo’s methods.
After a series of Twitter posts full of MC battle-style jabs, the vitriol reached a crescendo with other friends and members of Iceberg Venus X’s crew joining in the fight and, to put the icing on the cake, the fight was picked up and beaten like a dead horse by the Fader and XLR8R (both popular electronic/alt music mag). Funny enough, the newspiece from the latter, which apparently evoked Angela Davis in some dark humor-riddled, ironic attempt to discredit Iceberg Venus X, has gone missing.*
After reading the Twitter fight, I thought that using the social networking platform as a means to address the issue was a bit ill advised, but it was simply a reminder as to who holds the power and purse strings in such a situation. And many already know, rarely do underground DJs, and even less so underground DJs of marginalized groups (read: class, color, nationality, gender identity, sexuality outside of the dominant culture-defined norm). When identity politics are at play, the process gets muddier, particularly within a musical subculture that relies quite heavily on sampling, borrowing, lifting, and editing beats until they are damn near unrecognizable.
Despite Diplo’s humble upbringing, which he cites in his twitter fight (and quite often when his extracting of foreign music is questioned), his whiteness still lends itself to fortifying his legitimacy as an ambassador in the music world. But it also begs the question of whether or not his methods would be scrutinized at all were he from a different country, a person of color, or from a more visibly marginalized community? Much like any other art culture, is the DJ community subject to the same values as other mainstream industries, particularly as electronic music and it many subgenres gain increasing popularity in the US, despite its rogue beginnings?
*Ed Note: We recreated the piece here. – LDP